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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815–1882)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE LITERARY fame of Richard Henry Dana the younger rests on a single book, produced at the age of twenty-five. ‘Two Years Before the Mast’ stands unique in English literature: it reports a man’s actual experiences at sea, yet touches the facts with a fine imagination. It is a bit of Dana’s own life while on a vacation away from college. The manner in which he got his material was remarkable, but to the literature he came as by birthright, through his father, Richard Henry Dana the elder, then a well-known poet, novelist, and essayist. He was born in Cambridge in 1815, growing up in the intellectual atmosphere of that university town, and in due course of time entering Harvard College, where his father and grandfather before him had been trained in law and letters. An attack of the measles during his third year at college left him with weakened eyes, and an active outdoor life was prescribed as the only remedy. From boyhood up he had been passionately fond of the sea; small wonder, then, that he now determined to take a long sea voyage. Refusing a berth offered him on a vessel bound for the East Indies, he chose to go as common sailor before the mast, on a merchantman starting on a two-years’ trading voyage around Cape Horn to California. At that time boys of good family from the New England coast towns often took such trips. Dana indeed found a companion in a former merchant’s clerk of Boston. They left on August 14th, 1834, doubled Cape Horn, spent many months in the waters of the Pacific and on the coast of California, trading with the natives and taking in cargoes of hides, and returned to Boston in September, 1836. Young Dana, entirely cured of his weakness, re-entered college, graduated the next year, and then went to study in the law school of Harvard. During his cruise he had kept a journal, which he now worked over into the narrative that made him famous, and that bids fair to keep his name alive as long as boys, young or old, delight in sea stories. It is really not a story at all, but describes with much vivacity the whole history of a long trading voyage, the commonplace life of the sailor with its many hardships, including the savage brutality of captains with no restraint on passion or manners, and scant recreations; the sea in storm and calm, and the California coast before the gold fever, when but few Europeans were settled there, and hides were the chief export of a region whose riches lay still secreted under the earth. The great charm of the narrative lies in its simplicity and its frank statement of facts. Dana apparently did not invent anything, but depicted real men, men he had intimately known for two years, calling them even by their own names, and giving an unvarnished account of what they did and said. He never hung back from work or shirked his duty, but “roughed it” to the very end. As a result of these experiences, this book is the only one that gives any true idea of the sailor’s life. Sea stories generally depend for their interest on the inventive skill of their authors; Dana knew how to hold the attention by a simple statement of facts. The book has all the charm and spontaneity of a keenly observant yet imaginative and cultivated mind, alive to all the aspects of the outer world, and gifted with that fine literary instinct which, knowing the value of words, expresses its thoughts with precision. Seafaring men have commented on his exactness in reproducing the sailor’s phraseology. The book was published in 1840, translated into several languages, and adopted by the British Admiralty for distribution in the Navy. Few sailors are without a copy in their chest. ‘The Seaman’s Friend,’ which Dana published in the following year, was inspired by his indignation at the abuses he had witnessed in the merchant marine.  1
  Dana did not follow up his first success, and his life henceforth belongs to the history of the bar and politics of Massachusetts, rather than to literature. The fame of his book brought to his law office many admiralty cases. In 1848 he was one of the founders of the Free Soil party; later he became an active abolitionist, and took a large part in the local politics of his State. For a year he lectured on international law in Harvard college. He contributed to the North American Review, and wrote besides on various legal topics. His one other book on travel, ‘To Cuba and Back, a Vacation Voyage,’ the fruit of a trip to that island in 1859, though well written, never became popular. He retired from his profession in 1877, and spent the last years of his life in Paris and Italy. He died in Rome, January 6th, 1882.  2

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